I Called Him Morgan, the new documentary from filmmaker Kasper Collin, removes layers of murkiness surrounding the untimely death of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot and killed by his common-law wife at Slug’s Saloon on Feb. 19, 1972, during one of the worst blizzards in New York history. He was just 33 years old. What’s revealed is a unique and poignant journey taken by one of the most prolific trumpeters of the hard-bop era.
Collin has crafted a truly illuminating film. The filmmaker relishes in the vast material he was able to amass, highlighting numerous iconic recordings and photos from Morgan’s early days with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and his Blue Note sessions with the Jazz Messengers, in which he is often flanked by other jazz architects like Bobby Timmons, Hank Mobley and Wayne Shorter. Firsthand accounts from Shorter, Bennie Maupin, Jymie Merritt and others breathe new life and perspective into these floating sounds and images.
Collin also draws inspiration from the blizzard itself, which becomes the leitmotif throughout the film, building up to that fateful night. Together with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma), they incorporate newly edited footage of the snowstorm, shot using a 16mm Bolex camera.
But it is the inclusion of Helen Morgan, the common-law wife who was solely referred to for decades as the “killer of Lee Morgan,” that makes this a truly remarkable film. The running tape of her voice not only becomes the film’s through line, handled with precision throughout, but in musical terms, Helen has become the superimposed chord structure in Lee Morgan’s stunted life and career.
DownBeat recently sat down with Collin via Skype from Sweden. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When and how did you first conceive of a documentary on Lee Morgan?
I made a film about Albert Ayler [in 2005], which took about seven years. That was my first feature documentary, which also took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was a beautiful journey. But being a filmmaker, I was a little reluctant to jump into another project that would be in the same environment. So I was working on other films for a while.
Then, about eight years ago, I came across this clip on YouTube with Lee playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. They performed Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere.” Up until then, I hadn’t really been listening to Lee because I was more into rock music and free-jazz, playing a bit early on in my life. But hearing and seeing Lee play that solo, that was amazing for me … I don’t think I ever heard anyone play trumpet like that before. It was amazing and I found myself playing this clip on repeat for many days (laughs). That’s what is so fantastic with music; you think you’ve heard so much, but then there’s something new that surprises you.
From there on, I became interested because I realized I didn’t know [much] about Lee—that he was this wunderkind who was signed to Blue Note at 18, made a bunch of great records when he was just a teenager, [and] played with all the greats. And I knew that he made The Sidewinder and he was shot in his [early] 30s by a woman. But I didn’t know more than that. Coming from free-jazz, Sidewinder was never really my music at that time, so I hadn’t been listening to it.
But in that solo, I realized that there was this young, searching artist who had a really unique voice in jazz. Then something in me said, “OK, maybe this is a film.”
That was maybe in 2009 and there were quite a few [players] still around. I started to reach out to them. Quite a few of them started to talk about [Lee’s] last four years and how he spent them with a woman named Helen, a relationship that I didn’t know about. They started to talk about this woman with a lot of love and passion; that she was really special for him and had helped him from an addiction [to heroin] that threatened to kill him. That was [also] something I didn’t know about. And this is the same woman who kills him in the end. That was a very special story, almost like a Greek tragedy in a way.
For many, this film serves as an introduction to the elusive Helen Morgan. Talk about your experience in learning about her, particularly discovering the cassette tape of her rare interview, recorded in North Carolina.
A lot of jazz lovers who don’t know [about Helen] tend to kind of hate her because [she] took their hero away. Somewhere, I can understand that [anger] and a lot of musicians were also angry in a way. But they [also] have these mixed feelings [as] they were talking about what went down on the “last night.” That night, they did not just lose one good friend, they lost two good friends. They knew Helen almost as well as Lee. They were always together and knew what she had meant to him. She was the manager, and she did everything for everyone.
Early in my research, I found [educator/disc jockey] Larry Reni Thomas who made this  interview [with Helen] on a cassette tape. He had a blog and [posted excerpts] of that interview. She wasn’t alive for much longer and you couldn’t really find any other information about her. She was only defined as “the killer of Lee Morgan.” As you’ll discover, she also helped him and contributed to this music and kind of gave him a “second act.” That was the story that those guys I met told me because I couldn’t read about it.
Then I found this interview. It was sent to me not as a cassette, but as a CD. It wasn’t just the story. It was the way she was telling it and the sound of her voice. It was amazing to listen to it, as a document. I didn’t know exactly what to do with it at that time.
With the abundance of Blue Note recordings and classic Francis Wolff photos, coupled with firsthand accounts from the musicians and Helen, how did you approach editing the footage for the film?
I worked with three brilliant editors. I myself am also an editor, but I tend to work with smaller parts: how we’re going to visualize this, where we’re going to use this music, and with what photos. I put a lot of energy into those details. But those guys are so good in helping to get everything together.
The first one is Eva Hillström, the editor of my previous film. She’s a person that I trust very much. I went to her with this project, when it was very fresh and kind of “not ready.” Then I worked with another brilliant person named Hanna Lejongvist, who also edited The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 [Göran Olsson’s 2011 documentary]. We worked a lot with the visualizing and getting it together as a film. In the end, I had another major editor named Dino Jonsäter, who edited Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. More of a feature film guy, he could really polish some stuff in there.
With Helen’s voice, [as a] film editor, I realized that in order to see how valid this document is, in a documentary film, I had to work a lot with [Helen’s] interview and edited that down to 11 scenes. Those are pretty much the ones [you see] in the film.
When I was flown to Telluride [Film Festival], it was like a 30-hour flight for me. I arrived in the middle of the night and one of the guys I bumped into was Peter Sellars, the opera director, who’s an amazing person. He hugged me every time we met. He saw the film and was like, “Man, you made this duet between Helen and Lee!” I thought that was a nice way of expressing it … I was very glad he said that.
About how many hours of artist interview footage did you obtain and edit for the film?
In terms of interviews, we made more interviews, of course, than what’s in the final film. I narrowed those down to get more of an intimate feeling. It was very important for me not to have any experts in the film. It should be the people that were there. I didn’t want any voiceovers. That makes it more difficult to edit the film; you have to spend more time to get it the way you want it to work. But it’s probably 40 times as much material as in the film. There’s an enormous amount of material that’s not in there.
In the beginning, people trusted me and they were on board. There were others that were more difficult, like Wayne [Shorter]. I know that now, he’s more open to talk about this, but there was a period when he really did not want to talk about the past at all. I was actually waiting for him for four years. We tried to make this film without him, but I knew from the beginning how important he was.
He shared those very important moments with Lee and the Messengers. That was such a highlight in Lee’s career. They were really tight buddies and I was so fascinated by getting close to that. It struck me that when I had a chance to make this interview with Wayne, it added a fantastic quality for me to the film because he was talking about Lee as an artist, at the same level as him. That was so generous of him, in a way. You could feel the love that he had for Lee.
Has making this film given you more clarity on who Lee was and some sort of resolution surrounding his untimely death?
This is something that’s so hard to talk about. It’s hard to understand on what level Lee was addicted to narcotics. I don’t know if you had someone close to you who went in the wrong direction, but meeting the people who surrounded Lee, there was of course a tremendous amount of sadness attached to this. Not just in terms of the ending. But it was always more about this incredibly talented guy who had everything—that even Miles Davis considered to be the best trumpet player ever. If you have a friend like that, what parts will you remember?
There were a lot of sad memories shared and they kind of struggled to talk about Lee. It was important for me, as the narrative unfolded, to deal with Lee’s [heroin addiction]. We didn’t stay there too long because it was going to be too heavy, but it still needed to be there because it was so important for us to understand his story. But I did not want to make a film that talked only about his [addiction] because that wouldn’t be fair. There was something else that he left us that was more valuable—the music, the journey, the spirit he had. DB
I Called Him Morgan premiered March 24 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and debuted on March 31 at the Metrograph Theater, both in New York City. On April 7, the film will be screened in several cities, including Santa Fe, New Orleans, Seattle and Portland. Visit icalledhimmorgan.com for more details.